This year’s Formula One world championship may have been a two-horse race almost from the off but a win for in the Mexican Grand Prix has at least ensured the protagonists must weigh in at least once more in earnest. The three-times world champion led his Mercedes team-mate, Nico Rosberg, from pole and, having already dominated the weekend, proceeded to do so again when it mattered. A win was the minimum the British driver required in his attempt to defend his title and he delivered with almost flawless aplomb at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez.
While he was trouble-free at the front, however, the final stages were enlivened by a battle in which Sebastian Vettel initially claimed the final podium spot, after an aggressive fight in the closing stages with Max Verstappen in the Red Bull, who was penalised five seconds after he gained an advantage by leaving the track, demoting him to fifth. However, Vettel subsequently received a 10-second penalty himself for moving under-braking in front of Daniel Ricciardo, promoting the Australian to third and Vettel to fifth. The decision is unlikely to improve the German’s temper, which had already been running high. He had said on team radio that his message for the race director, Charlie Whiting, regarding the Verstappen incident was to “fuck off”.
This is Hamilton’s eighth win of the season to Rosberg’s nine and, while it was exactly what he needed to keep the championship fight alive, his team-mate did what he required to maintain his advantage. The German now leads by 19 points with a maximum of 50 available to Hamilton at the remaining two rounds in Brazil and Abu Dhabi – enough for the German still to take the title with victory at São Paulo or second and third places against wins from the British driver.
Hamilton had come to Mexico buoyant from his win at the last round in Austin and, with everything still to play for, his focus has been absolute all weekend. The 31-year-old was quicker than his team-mate across practice and qualifying and the setup which the British driver found had worked well did so again in a race in which he was untroubled.
The opening of Hamilton’s 51st career win was one on which he will not wish to dwell, however. He had the start he needed after some poor take-offs this season and led off the line – he looked comfortably clear but braked late and locked up into turn one, failed to make the corner and went across the grass to rejoin on the entrance to three. Hamilton was not penalised and, when asked if he thought he had gained an advantage, he said: “I was in the lead going in and in the lead coming out, so no, I don’t think so.”
It was not an opinion shared by all the drivers, however, especially since Verstappen’s penalty was imposed for doing the same at turn one. “I think Lewis deserved a penalty for cutting the corner,” noted the other Red Bull driver, Daniel Ricciardo.
Hamilton was unchallenged from there to the flag by Rosberg who, in contrast, had struggled to dial-in his car all weekend. Having failed to pass Hamilton from the start or on the long drag to turn one, and knowing a well-consolidated and problem-free second place was all he needed, Rosberg’s rhythm suggested a driver who had long since calculated the percentages and whose push was more targeted at ensuring he did not surrender second to the ever-pressing Verstappen, who took the fight to him with the same fearlessness and impetuosity that has characterised the best parts of his season but which cost him the fury of Vettel at the end.
The pair were battling for third on lap 67 when Vettel passed as Verstappen locked up and went wide but rejoined in front of the Ferrari. The team told him to give the place back, but he did not, prompting Vettel’s angry message to the race director believing he had not been given instruction to do so.
The German was further infuriated as Verstappen backed him into the chasing Ricciardo, who moved to pass and Vettel squeezed him, under-braking to block him – a manoeuvre for which Verstappen has been heavily criticised several times this year. The stewards investigated and found against him, causing the third rearrangement of the podium positions of the day.
Vettel’s ire lasted well into the cooling down lap, swearing across team radio and gesticulating at Verstappen, but he was considerably calmer after he was hurried to the podium with the result reversed for the first time – a decision that Verstappen in turn was unhappy with. “I think it is pretty similar to what happened in corner one; Lewis went off and got a massive advantage,” he said.
Helmut Marko, the Red Bull adviser who was close to Vettel during his four title victories at the team, was not impressed. “The situation is unworthy of a four-time world champion,” he said. “His choice of words certainly wasn’t first class.” Equally the Ferrari driver may consider himself lucky he was not punished further under the sporting code regulations for an “act prejudicial to the interests of any competition or to the interests of motor sport generally”.
Clear of the bad language and the bickering for his second win in a row, however, the very lack of drama at the front was exactly what Hamilton required to move one step closer to taking the title race to the final furlong.